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Discovering the real history of our peoples

By Graham Young - posted Friday, 1 September 2017

The uproar over the use of the word "discover" is the latest skirmish in a war over two equally mythical views of Australian history. One the European view, and the other the Aboriginal view. The European view sees settlement as a benign and largely peaceful occupation by an intellectually, spiritually and technologically superior civilisation. The Aboriginal view sees it as a violent and unlawful invasion of a spiritually and intellectually superior civilisation by one that was merely more technologically advanced. Both views overlook how similar all occupations of this land were, from 60,000 years ago until the present.

We would go a long way to solving our antagonisms if both sides would stop playing semantics, and take an honest look at their own histories, and see through to our common humanity. This is particularly important with the federal government engaging Marcia Langton to write an Aboriginal studies syllabus to be taught to primary school children.

In the case of "discovery" the Europeans are being fitted-up with a view that they didn't actually hold.


In its plain English usage today (and I can't discover much change in its usage over the last 200 or so years) it means to find something, but not necessarily for the first time in human history. Otherwise the Discovery Channel would be a nonsense (particularly repeats), and Tourism Tasmania's "Discover Tasmania" would be a continual dispossession not just of the indigenous inhabitants, but everyone who came there before the last tourist.

Discovery can mean "for the first time" – which is generally the way it is used with respect to scientific discoveries, but only with respect to scientific discoveries – but it is generally a word used particularly to a person, or a group of people, and does not assume that no one else knew of the existence of somewhere else, nor that they had never been there. A couple of centuries before Cook, instead of using the Latinate word "discover", people might have used the Germanic "found" as in Newfoundland. If that had been the case would "found" be at the centre of a linguistic brouhaha?


Certainly Cook didn't expect to find uninhabited lands – his instructions specifically told him what to do when he met inhabitants – and would have expected other countries in the vicinity to know of the existence of Australia. So it wasn't in his mind that there were no inhabitants, and that no one from anywhere else couldn't have been here. Just that he was the first from the European world. His expedition was also primarily a scientific one, so in this context discovery takes on a whole new meaning in that not only was he charting the coast, but the botanist on board was taking floral and faunal specimens.

So the debate is an arid one, waged by looking for a reason for offence.

And there is too much of that in our relations with aboriginal Australians. If we are going to be honest about Australian history we have to be honest about everyone's Australian history.


The British interest in Australia was partly scientific, but it was also existential. Since the discovery of the New World, and the exploitation of it by the Portugese and the Spanish, European powers became world powers, and used the exploited wealth to wage war against their European neighbours with the aim of conquering them. So British interest was also geopolitically strategic. 26 years after Cook the British were fighting a war against Napoleon which lasted 12 years. Denying the French access to resources, and claiming them for yourself, was part of the war effort. Not that Australia played much of a part in that, but it was part of the mindset. You annexed land lest you yourself be annexed.

(Actually, if the French had colonised Australia, Australians might have been voting in the last French elections. Citizens of New Caledonia were able to because the French didn't get the full memo about decolonisation.)

But then, the aboriginal interest in Australia, while shrouded in the mists of history has to be similar. Populations move for existential reasons. They get pushed out by stronger groups, or they run out of resources and look for somewhere else. They didn't arrive here all at the same time, and later arrivals would have pushed earlier arrivals out of the way, or themselves been pushed-off to other areas. We know that there was not infrequent warfare between aboriginal tribes. No one wakes up one morning and says "Let's live in the Tanami Desert," or any other desert. Or willingly walks down to Tasmania, the coldest part of Australia, at the end of an ice age, if they had a choice of all the locations in the country.

We also know that Aboriginal fire-stick farming radically changed the landscape, and that Aborigines were most probably responsible for the extinction of the mega fauna. Rather than a wilderness where Aboriginal people lived in harmony with nature, Australia was a managed landscape that they tilled in ingenious ways that were often invisible to the European settlers.

So both groups of settlers – Aboriginal and European – brought technology and human violence to the continent. While we keep looking for a first perpetrator, it is going to be impossible to move on, and our not wanting to face the facts will continue to manifest in absurd fracas over minor linguistic nuances.

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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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